Being inspired to make a particular film is a lot like falling in love — it happens when you least expect it. In March of 2004, my colleague, Tommy Nguyen, and I were working on a video piece about Rachel Gordon, a city hall reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, who married her long-time partner (a Chronicle photographer) while covering the city’s momentous same-sex marriages. Some editors at the paper thought that their marriage might be perceived as a conflict of interest, and both women were removed from the story — the biggest one Gordon had ever covered.
The general public probably didn’t notice, but many people in journalism and gay-rights circles were reeling. And many of us wondered how Gordon’s situation differed from that of reporter Randy Shilts. Shilts was a Chronicle reporter between 1981 and his death in 1994, and he was touted as the first openly gay reporter at a major media outlet. But what he is best known for is his groundbreaking AIDS reporting, which culminated in his 1987 book "And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic."
His straightforward reporting and criticism of gay sexual practices made him a divisive personality in the gay community. To some, he was a "gay Uncle Tom"or a "token fag," to others he was an AIDS celebrity — like Elizabeth Taylor or Magic Johnson — an outspoken individual trying to make a difference.
In 2004, I actually knew very little about Shilts, but I would discover that today his memory has been obscured by the ongoing tragedy of AIDS and by no small amount of baggage that his personality and his work engendered.
I’ve long been preoccupied with AIDS. Having come of age in the 1980s, hysteria about AIDS fostered a sense of sexual fear and regret (not to mention blood tests) that seemingly only marriage could overcome. And so Rachel Gordon’s conundrum piqued my curiosity, and I wanted to know more about Shilts and his times.
When I began my research, information about Shilts was surprisingly scarce for such a high profile individual. There was no biography, no film, and little information about him personally. The most comprehensive texts I could find about him were his obituary and an article commemorating the 10-year anniversary of his death. In both, there were hints of controversy, hints of triumph, and hints of complexity, but I did not get a sense of the person.
Ultimately, I would spend hours at the San Francisco Public Library, getting to know him through his archive — more than 170 boxes of his writings, photographs, and personal mementos. I would hold his driver’s license, his checkbook, and his press pass. I would read his journal entries, his letters and cards, and hundreds of his articles, and flip through his medical records and childhood scrapbook. And I would realize that he had been a brazen blend of ego, insecurity, talent, and commitment. But above all else, I would understand that he considered himself a reporter whose calling it was to inform the public, at great cost to his personal life, about the homophobia, the in-fighting, the politics, and the greed that allowed AIDS to reach the proportions it has.
And when I visited his grave in preparation for a shoot, the plainness of his headstone seemed to reflect the state of his memory, and I wondered how he would feel about me, a stranger, making a movie, "Reporter Zero," about his achievements, his demons, and his death.
"Reporter Zero" won a student Academy Award and plays Frameline30 along with "Books of James" Sat/24 at 3:30 p.m. at the Roxie.
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